Dean’s health care stand has infuriated party leaders, who have alternately tried to marginalize him and to bring him on board. Yet at the same time, his provocative approach has re-energized the political group he founded and thrilled legions of progressive activists, many of whom were drawn to politics by Dean's insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, then deflated when he didn’t land an Obama Cabinet post.
They have grown increasingly disenchanted with Obama’s presidency and are urging Dean to keep up the drumbeat as the health care debate heads to conference this month; to push Obama to stand more firmly with liberals on other issues; and, if the administration continues to disappoint, to consider challenging Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries (a far-fetched scenario for which one liberal blogger recently posited Dean was “perfectly positioned”) or — if nothing else — to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, when Obama could be finishing his second term.
“It’s almost like the circle has come all the way around again, and Howard Dean’s voice is leading the same charge that he started to lead in 2003,” said Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In fact, Dean’s resurgence in some ways resembles his meteoric rise to national prominence as a dark-horse presidential candidate whose strident anti-war rhetoric set the left ablaze even as it made Washington Democrats uneasy. This time around, his supporters and allies say, he is even better positioned to channel liberal frustrations, given his health care bona fides. A medical doctor, Dean as governor of Vermont oversaw the creation of a universal health care program for children and pregnant women in that state. But — policy specifics aside — for many supporters, Dean’s harsh December allegations that Obama and Senate Democrats caved to big insurance companies by shelving both a public health insurance option and the Medicare expansion that replaced it – and his much-criticized assertion that “the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House and start the reconciliation process” – brought to mind his 2004 campaign pledge “to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
Dean did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But sources close to him said that when the health care debate concludes, he’ll likely continue pushing the White House and congressional Democrats to take liberal stances on other issues, including alternative energy, and also will stay involved with Democracy for America (DFA), the political action committee he founded and recently reconnected with.
“He is going to keep pushing the envelope on health care and some other issues,” said Dean’s brother, Jim Dean, chairman of DFA, which was created from the remnants of his brother’s presidential campaign. “Someone’s got to do it, because a lot of Obama’s core constituencies don’t feel like they’re getting paid attention to right now.”
Howard Dean “certainly subjugated a lot of stuff because he was the DNC chair,” his brother said. “But when he realized he wasn’t going to be in the administration, he was going to speak out about something, and he’s been committed to health care ever since he first ran for office.”
After Obama last January tapped close ally Tim Kaine to replace Dean at the DNC, Dean hired former DNC communications director Karen Finney as his spokeswoman and signed on as a contributor at CNBC, a strategic advisor with McKenna Long & Aldridge (a major lobbying firm for which he specializes in healthcare and alternative energy issues) and a consultant at DFA, where he participates in regular strategy sessions.
The group, which had previously focused primarily on grass-roots organizing and campaigns, mobilized in support of the public option more than it had around any other policy issue, Jim Dean said. It saw a corresponding spike in both its membership and donations and is planning to continue taking on the administration over policy issues, said Dean, explaining, “I see us constantly having to make sure that this party doesn’t fall back on its heels the way it did in the 1990s. And this health care thing wasn’t exactly a confidence builder.”
After top White House aide David Axelrod last month set into Howard Dean for trashing the latest iteration of the health care bill, DFA blasted an e-mail to its 1.2 million members declaring “Governor Dean speaks for me” and urging donations to DFA “right now to get Howard’s back and fuel our campaign for real reform.”
On a Florida progressive listserv, one poster urged readers to donate to DFA instead of the DNC, which in the days before the Senate’s pre-Christmas vote to pass health reform, urged the 13 million subscribers on Obama’s campaign e-mail list to call their senators in support of the Senate bill.
After unsubscribing from OFA and pledging to turn his efforts to DFA and another liberal PAC that supports the public option called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, former Obama volunteer and donor Michael Hermann, a Los Angeles musician, told POLITICO: “I find the administration's hubris in thinking they will never lose their liberal base astounding.”
Wendy Sejour, a DFA leader in Homestead, Fla., who is also active in her local Democratic Party, said “what the administration does not understand is that when they try to marginalized Dean and DFA, they insult us and dismiss our hard work. We are the foot soldiers.”
Another DFA volunteer, Patrick Briggs of Pasadena, Calif., said he scrapped plans to become more involved in OFA over what he saw as its health care capitulation. He said Dean’s salvos “reminded some of us in the movement that at least there’s someone out there in the progressive community who’s looking out for our interest.”
Dean and his supporters even seem to be relishing the broadsides he’s absorbed from liberals eager to pass some form of health care reform.
After MSNBC host Joe Scarborough late last month cited a Washington Post columnist’s suggestion that Dean had “lost his mind,” Dean shot back, “Those are also the same people who said I didn’t know what I was talking about when I said we shouldn’t get into Iraq, when our party caved in on that issue six years ago.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, Dean said that the left has “been very disappointed” by the Senate’s shelving proposals for a government-run health insurance plan. “We don't think that there has been much fight in the White House for that,” Dean charged, asserting that the Senate bill falls well short of the type of reform Obama promised during his campaign and could make an already difficult Democratic 2010 election cycle even harder.
DFA could help make the 2010 election cycle a bloody one for Democrats, since it plans to support primary challenges to Democratic incumbents it deems insufficiently supportive of the public option, said Jim Dean, adding, “I’m not going to name names right now, but there are some actors in this who the Party and the country would be better off without.”
Additionally, Trippi said DFA could serve as a vehicle to help launch a future Howard Dean campaign by paying for staff and travel. Though he rejected the Netroots-stoked speculation that Dean would challenge Obama in a 2012 Democratic primary, Trippi asserted a 2016 Dean presidential run is not all that far-fetched.
Dean would turn 68 just after election day in 2016.
“A lot of establishment people might laugh at that, but there’s angst in the progressive wing of the party, and it matters that Howard Dean is emerging as the leading voice of that angst,” said Trippi. “It could matter on a number of other issues, and it could lead to another Howard Dean campaign for president,” said Trippi, who had a falling out with his old boss toward the end of the campaign but would not rule out signing on to a Dean 2016 campaign.
“There’s a real chance that if progressives feel at the end of the Obama era that there wasn’t enough movement on issues they care about, then somebody will emerge out of the progressive wing of the Party as a leading contender. If you follow that logic, then you have to conclude that it could be Howard Dean.”